Pilgrims and Partiers: Removing the Sting of Class Differences Between Comic Con Cosplayers

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Did security have to break up fistfights between battling Batmen?
Did mean-girl manners rule the day amongst the dozens of Wonder Women at Salt Lake’s first annual, record-breaking Comic Con?
Not that I heard much about or personally witnessed. Civilized good spirits largely prevailed all three days during this pantheistic, quasi-religious convention, one that has quickly overshadowed the Mecca-force pull of Salt Lake City’s LDS General Conference.

A Time to Set Aside Snobbery

Pilgrimages and Carnivale, as anthropologists and literary theorists have noted, create a special sense of “communitas” amongst the pilgrims who travel, worship or celebrate together. During pilgrimage (whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim or otherwise), the social playing field is temporarily leveled. Farmers can enjoy eating and worshiping alongside nobility, socially taboo at other times of the year.  At Comic Con, not only do the the geeks get to hang with the jocks, but the aesthetically challenged with their large girth, body odor, bad breath or bad costuming get to enjoy photo-ops with scantily-clad, professional cosplayers, plus may pose alongside true artisans who spare no expense or imaginative detail on their garb.

Medieval Carnival as well as modern Mardi-Gras are a time and place of sanctioned, permitted revelry. The usual strictness and division of social classes are shoved aside. Inverted power relationships are temporarily celebrated. Roles are reversed. Peasants dressed up as kings, and kings would dress up as peasants in ribald play (and often bawdy humor).

A couple of seminal books (the sort you get assigned to read in college and don’t think about on a daily basis until you’re staring straight down the barrel of Comic Con) are Victor Turner’s Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895-1975) 1968 book Rabelais and His World. Within Turner’s tome is a great essay I felt compelled to revisit, “Pilgrimages as Social Processes.” Turner discusses pilgrims’ acute awareness of class and caste differences, but how these are are set aside during pilgrimage, how pilgrimage is, in fact, actually a “solution” to the normal class distinctions perceived and exuded daily during “normal” life.

Pilgrims: Not Just an American Thang at Thanksgiving

While this could be hard for much of mainstream multicultural America to grasp, divisions in social rank prevailed in both America and Europe’s past, and continue to in plenty of subcultural pockets, plus in places where a caste system still defines and controls social conduct. Contemporary India as well as much of the middle east fall within this definition. Turner describes how

the Pandharpur pilgrimage, like the Muslim hadj, remains within an established religious system. It does not lower defenses between castes, just as Islam does not allow those beyond the Umma (the comity of Islam) to visit the holy places of Mecca and Medina.  Nevertheless, it may be said that, while the pilgrimage situation does not eliminate structural divisions, it attenuates them, removes their sting. Moreover, pilgrimage liberates the individual from the obligatory everyday constraints of status and role, defines him as an integral human being with a capacity for free choice, and within the limits of his religious orthodoxy presents for him a living model of human brotherhood and sisterhood. 207

Arguably, Salt Lake’s first Comic Con stands as a textbook model of this kind of “brotherhood,” even if pilgrims and partiers did receive some preliminary, mandatory reminding. Founder Dan Farr, as well as the local conservative commentators on the Comic Con website urged all attendees to dress and conduct themselves in a “family-friendly” manner. I neither saw nor heard about public incidences of drunken lunacy, fighting or sexual harassment, the sort so well described by Bryan Young in his outrageously funny Lost at the Con (which I heartily recommend).  Even the Salt Lake Comic Con’s “Cosplay Rules” section laid out strict weapons restrictions and also warned readers regarding their costume “modesty,” that “If you’re not within guidelines, you will be asked to cover up. We’ll have burlap bags available to help you comply.”

But There Will Still Be Snub

Nevertheless, perceptions of difference at Comic Con’s human zoo still educated the eye of every person who attended.  Participant observers quickly learn to discern the well-articulated costume or cosplayer from those in the amateur ranks. If you’ve ever survived a Renaissance art class, you’ll recall how many dozens of Mary and Baby Jesus paintings you had to remember.

In most cases of Cosplay, the iconic holy characters of fandom are also just as identifiable – just like every Wonder Woman, Superman or Sailor Moon is easy to spot, however, the aesthetic devil lives in the details, and it was these you had to somehow remember in order to pass the your test when asked about painter and year. The painterly devices of stroke, color, composition, symbols, props and articulation became your visual cues for parsing out differences.

The many noncommittal Comic Con attendees clad in shorts and t-shirts stood out as wide-eyed tourists this year, though I predict we will see at least a 70% increase in costumed self-adornment among attendees next year (wagers, anyone?) plus an even larger increase in years to come. An easy increase, given that the Con will expand to all three exhibition floors and the tourists (like that grumpy non-costumed guy who’s always at every Halloween party you’ve ever been to) catch the bug and are encouraged to get with the program.

Holier than Thou

Thinking lately about Cosplay, what strikes me as business person who engineers costumes for clients, at a quick pace and for a fee, is the almost holy devotion I see exhibited by cosplayers creating their own costumes, which can take many months. Reports of their 8-9 months of labor, huge expenses for fabric and accessories plus the analogies of gestation and birth are not lost on me. Nor is the etymology of the word “enthusiasm,” which defines an inordinate number of cosplayers devoted to their particular icons. In Greek, theos=god, enthous= possessed or inspired by a god.

The Mormon Mecca of Salt Lake’s downtown LDS Temple Square and its General Conference now has an equally devoted, if zealously pantheistic competitor in town. While the LDS Church Conference has its own stated as well as tacit dress guidelines, where infractions or deviations which are easily recognized by that community, the Comic Con pilgrims have a predominantly looser standard of measurement, usually an aesthetic one. If you’re a conservative person who’s able to see beyond any given nudity, you can then almost always tell who’s following the “rules” and who isn’t.  Why Comic Con is a great counterpart (or antidote?) to LDS General Conference rests in what Bakhtin describes as Carnivale’s “many” prevailing “dialogic voices” versus the single monologic voice of the king (or church leaders). The Carnival celebrates many voices at once.

Caste and Class Amongst Cosplayers?

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew Piper sums up cosplay rules for the lay reader. “If there is a basic tenet that governs the broad spectrum of cosplay, it’s that you should be more serious about detail than, say, trick-or-treaters.”

Serious cosplayers, like the serious Renaissance art history students I remember, will wholly devote themselves to the autodidactic task of viewing and critiquing as many examples as possible in a sacred mission to educate their own eye.  Scrutinizing as many examples as possible in the broad spectrum of well-articulated to poorly-conceived and built costumes, they craft and assemble their own, either in an attempt to identically replicate original comic, anime or film artwork, or they may decide to mash it up.

The sacredness (or profanity) in terms of identical mimetic replication or derivation are paramount and fully considered, but things sometimes get thrown-together at the eleventh hour in cases where time and planning simply fail. Sometimes, youth and naked skin rule the day. Common detractors, including Chris Niznik (on my facebook thread about a cosplay panel I presented on) lamented about “professional cosplayers” such as Jessica Nigri. He writes, “I’m personally not a fan…they cosplay but they don’t really try to hold true to the character (typically) as far as professional (sic) goes i feel if you want that much fame you should put effort to make it more accurate instead of just trying to show off your body…”

Fundamentalism, Orthodoxy, Liberalism and Compromise in Cosplay

How Devout is Your Cosplay?

By many, faithfulness or adherence to the doxa or literal ‘text’ is viewed as most “honorable”. Like many religious people you know, literal rules are sometimes broken, with varying feelings of “guilt” or “shame” or neither, if we’re talking postmodern irony.  A code may be broken on a holy day if it’s inconvenient. A vegetarian might eat meat while a guest in someone else’s house so as not to show disrespect or create waves.

Such became apparent while working lately on both a “Vegeta” costume from Dragon Ball Z as well as a “Space Ghost” costume for two young male clients who had opted not to “make their own” in a notably do-it-yourself community. I was struck by the conversation of these two who met each other one day in my studio and they naturally began discussing the evolution of their characters’ artwork and their changes through time, opting for particular costume details over others based on what I can only assume is an instinct towards orthodoxy in both cases.  As for our Space Ghost client, his inclination was firmly fixed in the current DC Comics version, a recontextualization of the classic 1960s character though with a brand-new backstory, and he asked for costume details to match, even though the character’s silhouette, line and color hadn’t really changed at all.

The Vegeta client opted for the “original” version of his character, whose armour includes attached faulds, instead of a later version which has none at all. The issue of footwear for “Space Ghost,” interestingly, became a point of decision making. None of the historical versions of the character depict Space Ghost in any real footwear, and the cosplay rules at Comic Con are very strict. I suggested, “what if we got you some high-top white Converse?” His reaction was that it would be an alright, if unorthodox solution, because it might add levity to the costume and still comply with the convention rules.

If Christians are encouraged to “be” like Jesus, cosplayers seem similarly fueled to fully inhabit the persona of their god or icon, at least in terms of garb. Perusing the thousands of posted photos from Comic Con is a testament to full-body performances of favorite characters’ postures, their warrior moves and attitudes. Whether one steps into or out of character may depend on a need for the sense of safety and fantasy that can come from dressing up like someone cooler, braver and better looking than you personally think you are. Yet in a modern populous at a huge urban festival such as Comic Con, unless you personally know or recognized the mayor of Salt Lake City, his social rank or class would be completely invisible to you if you encountered him costumed as Thor. Unless you engaged him in extended conversation, you’d never know about his educational background in law and geography or anything else.

I’m Cooler Than You (Or You Don’t Fan Like I Fan)

On a Cosplay Panel that we both appeared on at this year’s Comic Con, Tanglwyst de Holloway had a pretty memorable line, “You don’t fan like I fan.” And by most accounts of human interaction at the Con this year, there was some pretty substantial social tolerance for deviations from the orthodox costume “texts” and/or forgiveness for the aestheticall-challenged or crudely made item. The dialogic nature of the event itself lends itself to magnificent diversity. It just isn’t life as we live it normally, – – though that might need some definition, because people normally perform themselves every single day simply by choosing what to wear.

I’ve always enjoyed Paul Fussel’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.  In one description of the American class “type” he’s identified what he calls “Category X” as a sort of cultural wildcard.  Simply, Category X individuals are traditionally the bohemians of any culture, mixing and matching their fashions and lifestyles at will, and they often confuse the “identifiables” — the preppies, yuppies and rednecks of any culture. Fussel argues that “when an X person, male or female, meets a member of an identifiable class, the costume, no matter what it is, conveys the message “I am freer and less terrified than you are…” (181).

The reluctant superhero or mainstream attendee at Comic Con, feeling less empowerment in his daily life, may be actually motivated by this urge in reverse.  As Oscar Wilde aptly put it, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” According to Manu Bennet, in Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew Piper’s article, “You want to bring out your inner hero,” he said. “You can generate a whole activity, running around as a superhero. Some people go to dress-up parties, but this is the dress-up party for your whole city.”

In toto, it’s hard to determine whether a Performance of Magnitude such as Comic Con shares more in common with Carnivale than it does with pilgrimage, in its loosening of social roles.  On pilgrimage, an individual in an indian subcaste has nothing really to fear or feel shameful about, for the caste system itself has defined that person’s status. There’s no American-style equivalent, really, of the self-consciousness or insecurity about not being brave enough, strong enough or cool enough.

Victor Turner relates the story of a woman, a professor of anthropology and sociology on pilgrimage, herself a member of the Brahmin caste.  Under everyday circumstances, someone of her caste would be forbidden from befriending members of the Maratha, a subcaste.  Pilgrimage relaxes those normal restrictions, however, and this scholar, Irawati Karve, had been befriended by the Maratha women, saying

I felt that they were more friendly. Many of them walked alongside of me, held my hand, and told me many things about their life. Towards the end, they called me “Tai,” meaning “sister.” A few of them said, Mark you, Tai, we shall visit you in Poona.” And then one young girl said, “But will you behave with us then as you are behaving now?” It was a simple question, but it touched me to the quick.  We have been living near each other for thousands of years, but they are still not of us, and we are not of them. (19)

Reading this, the Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” (that song made so famous by The Breakfast Club) rang through my brain. Urban Comic Con attendees would have far fewer caste intercourse restrictions than anyone, anywhere, on any kind of pilgrimage. Decisions to reunite with newly-made friends would be made, probably, according to simple affinity and mutual interests, making it unlikely (yet not completely inconceivable) that a Thor-clad mayor of Salt Lake City might invite a monster-truck-loving construction worker from West Valley City to a dinner party later. We await news of this happening.

rejecting cosplay

10 responses on “Pilgrims and Partiers: Removing the Sting of Class Differences Between Comic Con Cosplayers

  1. Tanglwyst de Holloway

    Tanglwyst de Holloway
    I’m a cosplayer who dresses up because it’s what I do. I don’t dress up to go to the store or anything like that but in a convention, costuming is walking art. Sometimes the art is famous, sometimes the art is original. Sometimes it’s amateur, sometimes pro. But the sheer amount of energy, effort and damned impressive brainwork is invigorating!
    I’ve been costuming since 1988 and have had the honor of dressing stage and screen. Celebrating this creative outlet is something I never knew I would crave, but I do. When I have an idea, it is similar to getting pregnant. I know the signs, I wake up at all hours of the night to do something. I have strange dreams and food cravings. I have outbursts of emotion and no matter what, nothing is going to stop this baby from seeing the light of day!
    I am so very glad and honored to be a part of such a glorious, innovative community. And I had a wonderful time actually meeting some of these folks face to face.

  2. M

    Well Said. I have always loved working with fabrics and challenges and creating costumes combines the two. Being able to take a 2D image and bring it into reality is fantastic.

    That being said, I personally don’t like the connotation that the word “cosplay” has come to mean. At it’s core, cosplay is just shortened for “costume-play” and everyone has done that at one time or another–especially if you celebrated All Hallow’s Eve or have been in a film/theatre production. But that word, cosplay, has come to mean much more. It seems to mean someone who has “lost touch with reality” as a friend of mine put it. They are “just putting it out there to show off their body”; “an easier way of being slutty”, and so much more.

    While I do make and wear costumes, I use the term CAUSEplay. When I don a costume (either one of my own design or a movie replica that I’ve created), it is to work. Bringing smiles and awareness to various charities using those costumes. I do go for authenticity with the costumes; I want to make it look like I’ve jumped out of the screen/page and into reality, but I use the costumes not to benefit myself, but to bring smiles and benefit others.

    There is a great photo that a friend of mine made:
    http://www.ittybittyurl.com/1ljG

    But then again, I’m probably in the minority in that thinking.

  3. J

    I had a wonderful time at Comic Con, but spent most of the time at the booth I was helping at. We were using our costumes to help raise money for charity (I was representing Rogue Base of the Rebel Legion–Star Wars). Over the years I have done several events where the attention I can bring from my costume is being used to draw attention to worthy causes. I wore a custom Jedi to promote the Con and our Fundraiser, as well as during the actual convention. The Jedi outfit has been an ongoing project for the last year or two, with the last upgrade being done a few days before the Con. I had worn it several times before and was already used to the the attention aspect a good costume can draw.

    My wife and I take costuming very seriously and invest a lot of time and money in our projects. Why? Because we want them to look as accurate/genuine as possible. The costumes are used in charitable fundraisers like the one I mentioned and often in film and theater. I am a professional actor and fight choreographer and my wife does professional costuming. We do many projects for stage and screen. Over the course of our professions we have gotten used to such a high quality that we often find ourselves subconsciously critiquing any costume that crosses our path. What we liked, what we didn’t like. What worked, what didn’t work? How would we change it? Etc.

    That is one of the reasons I like going to Cons; to see all the creative minds and the celebration of fandom. Yes, there are a lot of costumes that required less time and and money than mine, but I can still appreciate the effort. I realize not everyone is as dedicated to this art form as my wife and I are. At the same time, Cons will attract the costumers that go above and beyond, giving me a rare and appreciated Geek-gasm. I find tremendous satisfaction in looking at the costume close up, meeting the designer/wearer of the costume, asking questions, etc.

    So in summary, I enjoyed myself at Salt Lake ComicCon. What level of costumer am I? Advanced, definitely. I do this very often with a lot of talented people. Am I a Cosplayer? No, at least not in the same way as others who dress up. Cons are fun, but I wear my costume to make a difference. My wife and I like to use the term CAUSEplay to describe what we do. If I were do dress up solely for my own gratification, a large part of me would feel pretty hollow and unsatisfied. Through the Rebel Legion I have found a way to balance my passions with a chance to serve others.

    J

  4. Melodywise

    I’m extraordinarily new to the cosplay world, but the moment I learned about the SL Comic Con, it instilled a motivation so strong in me to create a costume for that specific event. I spent 2.5 months planning, researching, patterning, learning, and creating. Working on the costume was almost a helpless compulsion, sort of like an addiction, where I was only satisfied when I was working on it. I held myself to the highest scrutiny on “correctness” and the details, and I feel like I pulled off a very successful first cosplay costume.

    When I showed up at the con in my costume, the comraderie with the fellow cosplayers was amazing. I knew none of them, but we were all instantly friends. We all asked eachother how we built X Y or Z, and everyone was so positive and complimentary to eachother’s work, because everyone knew just how much time was spent. There was a temporary community there, where we only knew eachother by the character we were, for those few hours.

    Here’s a photo of my costume. http://i.imgur.com/2k6ZOz8.jpg
    one from the con: http://i.imgur.com/Ny7TezK.jpg
    …and a link to the reference. http://savagegolarion.wdfiles.com/local–files/merisiel/Merisiel.jpg

  5. David Sorum

    My Five Rules of Everything
    First Rule: If you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
    Second Rule: If you are having fun, do whatever you are doing to the best of your abilities.
    Third Rule: Not everyone has the abilities that you have.
    Fourth Rule: Teach, lead, and encourage those with less ability. Listen, learn, and ask questions of those with more ability.
    Fifth Rule: Always be kind. No one likes a jack-ass.

    That being said, SLCC was a BLAST! I can’t speak to the “status” struggle that may or may not have been there because I simply choose to ignore it in all of its forms. I had fun. My wife had fun. And it appeared that the VAST majority of the 80,000 attendees had fun. That’s all that really matters in the end.

  6. Jen Post author

    M! Had to steal that fun image and paste it into the blog- thanks! And Melodywise, fantastic work- , and J, the whole notion of ’cause’ play is such a great one. We’re seeing that happen more and more, don’t you think? Our shop has done work for groups including the “Make A Wish” foundation and others (usually ends up being so heartbreaking) but for certain, the promotion of causes by costumed players isn’t lost on us. If anything, we hope it’s growing (thinking of many people in our local community who do these events such as the Heroic group and the Voodoo Pearl Mermaids, among others). The most interesting and unusual of these may be the case of Gunny Monster. Getting to know soldiers in the US Marine Corps has been interesting, but in their uniforms, in groups, even when they’re working for charity events, they can be a bit severe and imposing. The uniforms and ‘costuming’ on the dog sure have a way of ‘softening’ people up and they flock to Gunny! https://mcgrewstudios.com/portfolio-type/service-dogs/ Do you think there might be a “cause” or charity out there that would be inappropriate to costume performers for? And if so, what would that be? What are the taboo groups or subjects? Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

  7. Sarah

    Loved Comic Con! great crowd that I found to be fun, if not a bit “deer in the headlights” as it was probably a new experience for most of them, and they are not used to lines for everything, as is common place for the bigger cons. Heck, Dragon Con had lines for the escalator . haha
    Just came from Dragon Con the week before that – woo! Seriously an epic con if ever there was one for costumes. That is my number 1 choice of all the cons for the exuberant way that the con goers enthusiastically cosplay, and the pure joy at which they interact with others. Heck even the over crowded elevator rides were a mini party of silliness.
    I am a giant geek, and am officially a fine artist, that is doing cosplay for fun/business. I adore cosplay of all levels. I get uber excited over the cheesiest of costumes just because I love the character they are dressed as. If its a costume that is beautifully created, or makes me gasp, I am there to tell that person how much I just love what they are. I have been known to yell “OMFG I LOVE YOU!!”, out of a car window, at those cosplaying Psychos from Borderlands 2…I got a “SALT THE WOUNDS!” back (inside gamer thing)
    I like to create my own costumes and would consider myself a student, always learning new things.
    I have not run into much negativity, but I have noticed that some people at Comic Con did treat others with some snobbery. I chalk this up to it being a new Con, and they are still trying to come into their own, and perhaps feeling a bit elitist due to the lack of cosplayers in the masses.
    I think in those cases they might have to much pride built up in their craftsmanship and should be gracious about those asking to take pics and adore all of their hard work.

    When I am in costume, its all about those taking the pictures of my costume. My costumes tend to get a crowd around them, and I will stand in that awkward pose balancing on crazy hooves if they want me to, just so they can get the shot that they want, even though my feet in sharp serious pain. Yes, I have stood by patiently retaking photo after photo for one person, with others waiting their turn, till he figured out his camera, and then I will accommodate the others waiting for their shot. If they approach me to appreciate all of my hard work and creation, then I will bend over backwards, so to speak to accommodate them back. I am thankful for their appreciation.

  8. Eliza Crosby

    I have never been to a Comic Con, or fantasy con, I have always wanted to go because it looks FUN! As a mom, I want my kids to learn that that is more important than the brand of jeans, or all around clothes and accessories you wear in front of your peers. I encourage them to be whoever, or whatever they want, as long as they are happy, and it’s not hurting anyone else. Cosplay, instills just that! People come to feel accepted, where in their everyday life they may be looked over, or possibly avoided. When they come to Comic Con they feel part of a family, and they know that even though they don’t know the “Superman” they just bumped into, they know they are the same, and won’t be judged. I recently watched a documentary called Jedi Junkies. It was ridiculous at first, but the more I thought about it, it was pure genius. All of these people go to Cons to experience the some sort of euphoria in their life, that otherwise might be dull or mundane. They had a contest for Leia, in the bikini Jaba the Hut scene. Many women with the same costume, and when put together they looked the same. Each beautiful in her own way, depicting someone they looked up to. I never once looked at the details. If I had seen each one individually, I might have realized one didn’t wear the chain on her neck, and another didn’t quite have the design right on the top. At first I thought, “wow, put some clothes on” but as it went on, I understood they could never do this in everyday life. The heavier set girls felt just as sexy as the toothpick anorexic girls. In the end, it didn’t matter. As a family we take great pride in our Scottish heritage. We go to the festivals, and my daughter even competes in Highland dancing. Each time we go, my boys wear kilts, sporns, and my husband has the family crest. Living in the suburbs in Utah, going to the grocery store in a kilt and gillies, might generate some critical looks. But at the festival, everyone is dressed the same, (well except for me, I am wearing the “Majesty royal Kilt Inspector” shirt, so as it is with Comic con and Cosplay. There is no room for snubbery, only FUN and acceptance. Jen you have written an amazing article. It tells me, that aside from my religion, and my daily life, I can take a day and be a real super hero! If the details are important to one person, then you should respect that. And if it’s outside the limits for others to worry about details, then they will still be welcome to sit at the royal table. I am excited to work at Cosplay. I can’t wait to learn! I plan to do just that! Much Love

    1. mcgrewsadmin

      Hi, our developer made this theme, loosely based on the look of an old one we had, “commander.” Answering what looks to be a sincere question and not spam- thanks for asking:)

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